Skeletal fingers rapped sharply on the glass.
Dream fragments scattered. Muffled by the rush of the ocean, the curtain rod rattled as a cool wind forced its way in.
“I have come for you.”
Unsure, I sat up. My skin prickled. Someone was here. I could sense him. In the shadows of the room, my eyes searched. Slivers of moonlight danced on the floor. His voice echoed in my brain. Where was this man whose whisper sent shudders down my spine?
“It’s only a dream,” my Logical Voice said softly. “You’re tired. The trip from Toronto was much too long. Shut the patio doors and go back to sleep.”
Tossing the thin cotton sheet aside, I slid over the edge of the bed and onto the floor. The tiles felt cool on my feet. At the door, I paused. Over the dark canopy of the sky, gray clouds coasted like ghost ships shifting in synchronicity. As I hugged my chest for warmth, I had my first glimpse of the Cuban shoreline.
About a hundred meters from the hotel, white caps shimmered and crashed down before racing back, disappearing into the frothy foam. The waves captivated. The hypnotic rhythm drew me into a trancelike state. When rain rode in with the wind, I tore my eyes away from the view and closed the door, latching it shut.
Rain in the tropics is unpredictable. It can come in softly, rolling in like an English morning mist, but other times it’s as wild and erratic as a tormented soul searching for redemption. This night was one where nature’s mood was as strange as my own.
As I swung around, an odd sensation overcame me. I froze.
A husky voice whispered, “Don’t despair. I am here to take you back.” From behind, strong arms wrapped round and pulled me close. A tender kiss brushed the nape of my neck. My body responded involuntarily. A flash of heat fired my core.
A stranger…or was he? I knew those hands. Lightly, they swept over my bare shoulders to the small of my waist. Warm breath tickled my ear, igniting flames that surged like wildfire into every part of my body. A teasing tongue feathered down the curve of my neck. Yet, curiosity combated pleasure. I turned.
But where there should have been a man there was nothing. A whiff of spice lingered in the air.
For a moment I stood still, waiting for him to return, but when a fresh breeze chilled my body I grabbed the silk robe I’d thrown on the wicker chair and pulled it on. Tentatively, I slipped my fingers underneath to touch my bare shoulder where his lips had singed my skin. He had been here in this room, as surely as I breathed.
On the bedside table my cell flashed red. I clicked the center. The time read six-o-six.
A few hours later…
It was overcast. Cool after last night’s rain. I drew my cardigan in closer doing up the first few buttons. A courtesy shuttle was provided for the tourists staying at the Hotel Caribe. Twice a day it left for Havana.
Like Noah’s ark, the tourists boarded in pairs; students, middle-aged couples, retirees and finally two young men, a lanky geek with glasses and his bald friend.
As the bus pulled into the street, I took out a paperback with the intention of reading. Flashes of palm trees scattered in the grassy fields distracted me. It would have eased my curiosity to see more but the long driveways meandering away from the public road kept the beachfront hotels hidden.
My stomach grumbled, telling me I should have eaten yet food wasn’t on my mind. The spirit in my room was. Its presence didn’t surprise me. Voices and visions had always been part of my life. A hidden part. Only my mom knew and she was long dead. As for my sisters, I’d lost contact years ago. My secret was mine alone.
Spirits didn’t bother me but this time it was personal. Ghosts are attracted to someone with a sixth sense. And then there was the fact that I was alone.
I had no regrets about my separation. The last thing I wanted was a man controlling my life again. For years, Henry had preferred to isolate himself in the basement reading. Our once active sex life was a distant memory. And then there were the verbal slurs. One day I decided I’d had enough.
Ten years of combat duty in a core area school and the added stress of the break-up prompted a quick escape. Cuba was perfect. With any luck I’d find out something about my grandmother and take all the photos I needed.
Outside, the traffic whirled by in a fifties time warp. Studebakers and Chevys were glamorously pleasing in an array of pastels and two-tones. Chrome wheels and decorative doohickeys glimmered brightly in the sunlight. The wheels of the antique vehicles shot up showers of brown mud as they sank into potholes filled with last night’s rain. With a smile plastered on my lips I felt happier than I had in a long time.
A sudden grind of brakes brought the bus to a halt. The driver let on a slender Cuban girl. When she got off further down the road, one of the single guys, the bald troll, perked up like a dog in heat and sprinted after her. From the window I could see a field and a dirt trail but nothing else.
From what I knew, he would offer her the required amount and she’d take it. Money exchanged for beauty. Girls came cheap here. Prostitution was the ticket to a good life. The smartest ones hooked a tourist permanently.
Along the road the driver stopped periodically to pick up locals and let them off until we entered Havana, where the bus pulled into a paved lot on a hill and parked. Having a terrible sense of direction, I played it safe by following the tourists from the bus in the direction of the harbor.
Sunlight hit the azure waters dotted with sail boats. It was time to get to work. From my oversized bag I dug out my new Nikon. It was the best digital camera I’d ever owned and a ticket to a new life.
A fisherman casting out over the railing was perfectly framed. With the wide angle lens, I captured the statue of a Cuban liberator at the edge of a broad sidewalk bordering the sea with a fort in the background. Through the lens, the Spanish fort from across the bay; appeared like a hazy fantasy castle.
A park was ahead. Broad-leafed trees shaded a well-manicured lawn. A stone statue of a lion spouted water into a tiny pool. Through the foliage, I spotted a carousel loaded with children riding painted horses, while young mothers stood below waving.
Across the street, a turquoise apartment building caught my eye. Paint peeled in irregular strips across the three storey structure. Peach buildings neighbored the residence on either side. Smiling in satisfaction, I took it in through the camera lens. It was beautiful in its neglect. Much like Italy. Yet as a photographer I knew it needed something. When I saw a boy and girl of about eight run into the narrow street in front of an old man on a rickety bike, I raised my camera. It should have been perfectly framed but somehow, it wasn’t. Out in the street, I tried again, this time zooming in.
A motor roared. With a step backwards my heel caught on the cobblestone. The bike swerved wildly and I hit the ground. My head spun like a rollercoaster out of control.
“Are you alright?” a deep voice shouted from above. Black sunglasses covered his eyes. Generous lips turned down at the corners. “You okay?”
When the man kneeled, a whiff of spice assailed my senses. I’d swear it was the same scent that lingered in my hotel room. With the helmet off, unruly sun-streaked hair fell over a high forehead. The lean, hard-muscled body in a black t-shirt was a real eye-opener. Jeans and sturdy leather boots gave him a tough look yet I didn’t take him for a biker.
Sunglasses removed, I looked up into eyes as green as a jungle lagoon.
I shook my head. Words stuck in my throat.
The stranger pulled me up. A jolt shot through my body. I tried to resist but his grip was vice-like.
“Can you walk?”
The powerful current from his hands caught me off guard.
“Do you speak English? German…Deutsch?”
Confused, my pulse raced erratically. My Logical Voice warned, “Slow down, girl. So what if he’s big and slick? You don’t need him.”
But my Hormone Voice was in heat. “A real woman needs a man.”
“Shut up!” I muttered under my breath. Sex only confused things.
Lifting me up as easily as an insignificant sack of potatoes, the stranger strode over to the sidewalk where he gently deposited me on a bench.
As I looked up into those mesmerizing eyes, I rambled distractedly, “I could have walked.”
“I’m sorry for knocking you down. The truck blocked my view. I really didn’t see you.”
“I know. It’s my fault. I was taking a photo.”
“You did this for a picture?” He slumped down on the bench, his lips thinning. His brow furrowed. “Do you know how close I was to seriously injuring you?”
I wasn’t listening. Strange vibrations tapped my senses. I stared, trying to figure it out.
“Do you realize how dangerous that was?”
Every instinct told me there was a connection between us.
“I almost killed you when you ran out into the street. I’m sorry for hurting you but you have to see how stupid that was.”
Whatever fascination I’d felt initially was beginning to curdle like stale milk. Crazy voices in my brain were bad enough. Sure, I’d made a mistake but I didn’t need the lecture. “See that road?” I pointed to the narrow street with the two-story buildings in rainbow colors. The children were still playing as if nothing had happened. The old man leaned on his bike looking at us. “It was perfect for the photo.” Suddenly remembering my camera, I picked up the Nixon and examined the lens.
“Never mind that.”
“This camera is important.”
The man’s voice suddenly softened. “I’m more concerned about you. Please, let me have a look.” His hand skimmed the back of my head.
I winced at his touch, not so much from pain but from the energy that came from his fingers.
“There’s definitely a bump. Hurt bad?”
“Not enough to be sent to a Cuban hospital.”
The stranger didn’t give up. He stuck three fingers up before my eyes. “How many?”
“I don’t need a test.”
“Stubborn, aren’t you? Woman, this is for your own good.”
“Isn’t that what they always say before something nasty happens?”
His answering smile was magnetic. “How many fingers do you see?”
I looked at the long shapely fingers before my face. “Three. You see, it’s as I said before. Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine. No concussion.”
His eyes shot to the motorcycle. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” In a few strides he reached his motorcycle and shoved it over to the side of the road, then grabbed a water bottle from a saddle bag. In the crowd he stood taller than most of the locals and tourists. I tried not to stare but as he examined the motorcycle from all angles, my eyes skimmed the black jeans snugly fitting in the right places. The lust factor went up a notch. He was as delicious as chocolate.
I should give him some slack. The accident was my fault. Of course, he would be ticked off.
Then reality struck me like a brick. He was eye candy and I looked like a wasted hooker. Quickly, I wiped under each eye for smudged mascara and fluffed my hair before straightening the skirt of my dress.
Meanwhile, the hottie was doing his male thing checking out his macho machine. Finally satisfied his bike was intact and in good running order, he returned to the bench with his leg dragging ever so slightly. He passed me a water bottle.
He grinned. “It’s okay. I just opened it. You won’t catch anything.
After I had a drink I shot him a look. “Are you okay?”
When he didn’t answer right away I repeated, “Your leg?”
“I am more concerned about you.”
“I’m sure you are but you’re the one who’s limping.”
His eyes glimmered with something I couldn’t read. “Nothing to worry about. If you think you’re okay, I’ll go. I’m running late.”
I clasped his forearm to stop him. Electric sparks flew to my fingertips. “Would you like a doctor? I don’t know the city but surely there’s a clinic.” My words escaped in a hushed whisper.
“I’m good,” he said curtly.
Whether it was his tone or his action, there was no mistaking the message. Once on my feet, I snatched up my camera and purse. “Good bye, and again, I’m really sorry for spoiling your day.”
Conscious of the wall he had inserted between us, I swung around and headed down the street. I wandered off into the crowd, not quite sure what my destination was, and passed a stall with pottery displayed. My mind was not on the clay pieces. As I massaged my temples, I thought of the stranger. He had secrets. I sensed it. Although my best move would be to stay away, a part of me wanted to touch him, run my fingers down the length of his body, and press my lips on his.
As I reached the second vendor, I felt those enigmatic eyes searing a hole in my back. I couldn’t resist. I had to look back. The black-clad figure still stood where I’d left him—one hand leaning on the motorcycle watching me.
Sizzling with heat, the curvaceous body in the floaty yellow dress was a mesmerizing sight. With each step, her hips swung as if she were dancing a slow suggestive salsa. And that sweet female scent. A breath of it made him weak in the knees. Yet it was more than that. A gold hazy light surrounded her body. He wasn’t sure what the aura meant but it was definitely arousing.
This woman was déjà vu. He had seen her before but where? Yet how could that be? He wouldn’t have forgotten those icy blue eyes. Reese shook his head to clear it.
He was running late. They would be expecting him. Women took too much time and energy. Both of which he had none.
Swinging his leg over the motorcycle, he revved the engine and pulled out onto the cobble-stoned street. The pain would have to wait. Delores had said her family needed help and what kind of a doctor would he be if he didn’t come through for them?
At the corner, he veered off down a road, drove a hundred meters and then slowed down before he stopped at his destination. The seventeenth century Spanish style building was brightly painted terra cotta. Attractive but for the rivers of flaking paint and laundry hung randomly on black wrought-iron balconies.
Reese pulled in and parked his motorcycle, his eyes wandering above the worn wooden doorframe where Viva la revolución was scrawled in black paint. With a creak, the rickety wood door opened and Reese headed up a narrow stairway. A tiny window high in the stairwell shed a glimmer of light on the specks of dust flying about. From one of the apartments, the stale smell of cigar smoke pressed heavily in the air.
As he reached the sixth floor, a sharp pain tore into his leg. He grimaced, pressing his hand on the spot. A trickle of blood ran down his calf splattering his shoe. “Shit,” he muttered, wiping it off with a tissue.
Number sixty-six was embossed on a walnut grained door. Tucking the tissue back into his pocket, he rapped briskly and waited. Footsteps tapped lightly and the door opened.
The brunette in a low-cut cotton blouse and short skirt could bring traffic to a halt. Black stilettos made her legs look long and touchable. But it was the coal black eyes in the flawless ivory face that made him stare.
“Welcome!” Her even smile was a dentist’s dream. “Delores assured me you would visit. In the e-mail my aunt mentioned your medical expertise. That is reassuring. I have been worried ever since my daughter’s temperature rose.” She pushed her hand up into the thick dark hair pinned in a loose bun. “Our doctor has been unsure of what to do.” Taking his arm, the young woman led the way to a bedroom in the back.
A pretty girl of about fifteen lay on a single bed, a sheet drawn up to a floral t-shirt. Her face shone with sweat.
From out of his medical bag, Reese took a small thermometer. “How long has she had this fever?”
“Two days, doctor, but it’s been off and on for months. I have tried various herbal remedies and they have helped yet her body still succumbs to the fever.”
“Don’t worry, señora. I’ll check her out carefully.” Inserting the tip of the device into the girl’s ear, he waited. When it beeped he studied the reading and turned to the woman. “I can see why your doctor was puzzled. It’s a low grade fever.” He felt below the girl’s jaw. “Swollen glands.” From out of his medical bag, he scooped up a tongue depressor and instructed, “Chica, this won’t hurt. Just need to take a look. Digame, ah-hh.”
The girl glared. Reese didn’t know what to make of it. There was so much hostility in those eyes. Had they exchanged words before he came? He lifted a questioning eyebrow to the mother.
The corners of the woman’s lips curled down as she stared angrily back at her daughter.
Reluctantly, the girl opened her mouth. Inserting a tongue depressor, Reese checked inside wondering what had her knickers in a twist. He supposed it was teenage rebellion. He got that. Besides, he’d been a bit of a bullet before he’d gotten his act together.
“Will she be alright, doctor?” A thin veneer of social correctness covered the mother’s displeasure.
“Yes. I’ll give you antibiotics for her.” Reese felt like he had stepped into a war just before the attack. Around the girl, a red aura flamed brightly. The anger had nothing to do with the fever. There was a gulf between mother and daughter. He set a bottle of pills on the bedside table. “These will do the trick. Make sure they are taken with plenty of water.” He smiled reassuringly and dug into his bag once more to retrieve a small bottle filled with a red liquid. “Throat spray for the pain. Your daughter should be much better in a couple of days.” Getting on his feet, he winced.
Dark eyes swept down his body. “Are you alright?”
“It’s nothing to be concerned about.”
The Latina stared silently a moment and then said, “Thank you, doctor. Delores told me what an exalted pediatrician you are in your country. It is so kind of you to come by. Now twice there has been this fever.” Another view of pearly whites and she purred softly, her eyes heavy-lidded. “Lola is my name.”
“Reese.” He was aware of the come-on. This wasn’t what he expected. “I’m glad I could be of assistance.” He tried to look professional but Lola’s beauty was disconcerting.
After pouring a glass of water, Lola gave her daughter a pill. She set the empty glass on the night table, pulled the sheet up to the girl’s chin and turned to the door, waiting for Reese to leave.
“My English is good. Is it not?” she remarked casually, once they were out in the hallway.
“Yes, it’s excellent.”
“Thank you. I studied at the university here. English is required in the hotel I work.” Coffee eyes under smoky lashes met his. “I would like to pay you for your trouble.”
Reese shook his head. “No, it’s not necessary. Delores and my mom are best friends. I was happy to come and help if I could.”
She motioned to the living room. “Please sit. At least let me offer you a drink.” She hurried into the kitchen before he could refuse.
A French provincial couch in a grey silk print and a high-backed chair in matching upholstery faced an oak coffee table. Flower pots filled with blooming tropical plants took up the rest of the space.
He sat down on the couch. In front of him on the table, a stack of cards caught his eye. They were larger and longer than regular playing cards. Reese took them and flipped through. Many were picture cards, the lettering in Spanish.
“The tarot,” Lola said, carrying in two mugs filled with beer. “Are you interested in your fortune?”
He shook his head but she ignored him. “Shuffle and count out twenty-one,” she instructed.
Something about her manner made him curious enough to pick up the cards. The pack was thick, almost twice that of playing cards. The shuffling went slowly.
“Have you been practicing medicine long?” Lola asked, when he started to count.
Not sure on his counting, he muttered distractedly, “Four years as a pediatrician but I worked in a general practice as well.”
“Delores said you were exceptional.”
“Mm-mm. Perhaps she exaggerates.” Reese took a chance and counted out another eleven before setting the stack down. “Now what?”
“You are very intelligent,” she said, laying out the picture cards on the table. Her finger nails were long and gold, curving at the ends. “Most people would have counted wrong with a distraction.”
“So what does it mean?” Reese eyed the first card. A King sitting on a shell-shaped throne.
Lola pointed. “A very important card. Rare. It represents you. The King of Cups. You are kind and generous. In control of your emotions. You don’t like drama.” She picked up her beer. “This beer is special. I made it myself. Salud!”
Reese followed her lead and clicked her glass. “Salud!” he said, tipping back the beer. “It’s good. Different. What is your special ingredient?
“A herb called calamus.”
“What is its purpose?”
She smiled mysteriously. “It has many.”
Reese laughed. “Alright. I’ll google it later. Now you have me curious. What about the fortune?”
“See, you do want to know, don’t you? Drink and I will continue.” Leaning forward, she gazed up at him in such a way it allowed a perfect view of cleavage only partially concealed by a scoop-necked white blouse. “You meet your soul mate. She is waiting for you.” A long gold fingernail pointed at a Queen in a long dress sitting on a throne near the shoreline. In her hands she held a gold cup with an ornate lid. “It is love. She contains it in the cup.”
Reese downed the beer. “And the rest?”
“Pain in the past. Challenges in the future. Together you will be with her and then apart.” Lola eyes narrowed. “There are obstacles to this love.”
A smile played on his lips. “Nothing but love in these cards?”
“Adventure, journeys, traps.” She pointed to a card with a hand holding a sword upright. “The Ace of Swords. You see, there is power with change. And mental clarity.” She glanced at the cards nearby. “Eventually you will have a breakthrough.” Lola stroked his forearm. “Don’t worry. You will make the right decision.”
Feeling slightly uncomfortable, Reese surveyed the room. “You like it here?”
“This is a small apartment. It will do for now. I have one room for my daughter and a second bedroom I share with my sister.” Over the rim of the glass, her eyes sent a message. “She’s away.”
Reese’s glance fixed itself on her breasts. It had been a long time since he’d spent time with a woman and this one was particularly enticing. He picked up his mug and tilted it back, unsure as how to proceed.
Unexpectedly, Lola brought her hands up to her hair, and undid a clasp at the back of her head, letting down shiny black locks. Like a frisky filly she shook her mane, until it settled in disarray on the curve of her shoulders. “Oh, I think I’ve caught my necklace in my hair. Can you help me?” With a twist, she lifted her hair and presented her back to him.
“I’m not good with this.”
“See the larger loop? Press down.”
Finding a gold oval with a tiny button, he squeezed and the necklace slipped through his fingers.
But Lola was prepared. Quickly, she caught it and held the necklace up. The medallion flickered with the light. A long Madonna-like face stared back.
“Who is she?”
“Watch. She smiles.”
The heavy round medallion had uneven edges. Lola spun the coin, sing-songing, “See her smile. Look at her sparkle. See her smile.”
“She is a saint?”
Lola’s voice was melodically pleasing to the ear. “Look. See how she sparkles?”
Reese peered at the gleaming medallion again thinking his imagination was playing tricks on him. It was almost as if the medallion was sending him a message. He tried to look away but the saint’s sparkle held him in her grip.
From a distance he heard Lola speak. “Reese, what is your last name?”
He was feeling so mellow it was difficult to get the words out. “Lyon, Reese…Lyon.” It wasn’t exactly clear why he was still here. Reese knew he should be going yet Lola’s dark liquid pools kept drawing him in. A part of him said to hell with convention. What was wrong with having sex with this damn attractive woman?
His eyes wandered back to the coffee table. On it was a statue of a woman in onyx holding a sword. Distractedly, he picked it up. An odd feeling overcame him. He sensed danger.
“Put it down,” Lola said sharply, eyes narrowing.
The words took him aback. When he slowly returned the figure to the table, he had a faint feeling of relief. He looked at Lola. Her face was close yet far away. “Another saint?”
“It is the same one.” Dark eyes glinted. “Santa Barbara Benedita.”
Odd how he’d thought a moment ago that Lola looked so Spanish but now he saw something else in her blood lines. That slight flare of the nostrils and the plumped lips. They wouldn’t have cosmetic fillers here. Was she a quadroon? The mixture of black and white made for an extremely sexy woman.
“I’m sorry. I was rude, Reese. We treasure our saints. They are part of our belief system.”
“Catholic or,” he considered, “Voodoo?”
She shook her head dismissively. “Neither. Santeria. We don’t speak of it much to outsiders.”
“And I am one of those.”
Lola smiled. “For now you are, but we could become closer and I might be persuaded to tell you more. How do you like that idea, Reese? I guarantee a pleasurable experience.”
It would be a diversion from his mixed up life, wouldn’t it? Possibly she felt the same way. Unfortunately, accepting sex would amount to payment for a service. No, that would be wrong. Something else bothered him as well. It was like a dark cloud had settled around him. Had he taken on some negative energy? This same feeling had come over him before Lisa’s death.
Drinking deeply of the beer, he finished it, set the glass on the table and stood. “Gracias for the beer, señora. I must go.”
“Lola to you, Reese. My name is Lola Rios Cadena,” she corrected with a wicked smile.
“Cadena. Just like Delores?”
“Spanish women don’t need to change their name when they marry.” She looked away. “But in my case, I was never married. I am free to do as I please.” Her gaze returned to him as she slowly skimmed her hands over his chest. “I think you want to stay,” she purred.
The stirring of his body agreed but he shook his head reluctantly. His brain was in a cloud, his thoughts disjointed.
“You look rather tired,” she said, wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue. “I think I could help you to relax.”
His mind flashed to the blonde and the hazy gold energy that had surrounded her body. She was the woman he had always imagined he’d encounter and today he had. He could kick himself for stupidly walking away.
Lola stroked his thigh, a seductive smile on her lips. She was lovely. All thoughts of the blonde vanished.
With one gold fingernail, Lola undid her top button. And then another until the blouse slipped off her shoulders. Her breasts were full and high in a black push-up bra. Looking directly into his eyes, Lola unclasped the front-closure. In a daze, he brought his hand forward to caress one peak and then the other, fingertips lightly skimming the perked hard buds.
With a power he wouldn’t have guessed, Lola took control, shoving him back on the couch.
“I want you now, Reese,” she whispered, straddling him.
It was almost agonizing to wait for her to undo his belt and slip down the zipper of his jeans.
Back on his motorcycle, Reese headed into the old town. The ragged buildings and cobblestone streets had their own charm. He could grow to love this place. Once he drove around the square in front of the cathedral, a change came over him. He felt lightheaded. Obviously the accident had taken a greater toll on him than he’d realized, or was it Lola? She was more than what she seemed. A puzzle with many pieces.
Reese frowned. From the color of the sky, it would rain soon. It would be wise to find somewhere to rest and take the pressure off his leg. A few drinks would go down good.
On a side street off of the square, Reese noticed a yellow building with the word Mojito etched on a wooden sign. A hole-in-the-wall bar. Not one of the famous Hemingway tourist traps. It wouldn’t be busy. Climbing off the bike made him wince. He had banged it good.
A black cat lay stretched out on the doorstep of the yellow building. It opened one golden eye and he could have sworn the cat grinned. Stooping down, he scratched the feline’s head until it started to purr and roll on its back offering a fluffy white stomach for scratching. Obliging with a quick rub, Reese smiled. From the sheen of his fur he guessed the little guy had an owner. With another quick scratch, he stepped over the cat. “Adios, puss,” he said, before heading inside.
For a moment he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. A glance around told him the interior was as clean as it was sparse with white stucco walls and a ceiling trimmed with heavy oak beams. The focus of the room was a curved bar. A few square tables and chairs were scattered around randomly. With the exception of a couple quietly conversing at a table in the corner partially hidden by a potted palm, the place was empty.
Behind the bar, a black man in his early forties, six two at the very least, with a wide frame that carried a lot of weight, paused in the steady motion of wiping the counter. The bartender looked up. A pair of brilliant blue eyes in a dusky face took him by surprise.
“Hola, señor. Something to drink?” His kinky gray hair spoke of his African roots yet the narrow hooked nose was pure Conquistador.
The bartender shook his head. Swiveling around, he snatched up a bottle of dark liquor labeled Bacardi in one hand and a bottle of Smirnoff vodka in the other. “I have these.”
“Rum would be fine.” The shelf held numerous bottles of rum in shades of dark to white. Off to the far left, Reese saw a bottle he was unfamiliar with. He peered at the name, intrigued. He had always wondered about Absinthe. “Is that the real thing?” he said, indicating with a jerk of his chin.
“It is. My Russian friend gave it to me.”
“Russians are still here?”
Jorge nodded. “A big population of Chinese also. Those are the languages we learn in school. Not many know English.” He set the bottle in front of Reese.
The doctor picked it up and examined the label. “From Czechoslovakia?”
“It’s the real thing. It has the wormword.”
“In that case, I’ll try it.”
Jorge shrugged. “Sorry, no sugar cube. If you want it fancy with the spoon you’re in the wrong bar.”
On the counter in front of him, the bartender set down the bottle and a glass in which he poured the greenish-hued liquid. “It’s strong,” he warned. “Two shots and my customer had trouble finding his way home. You want water?”
Reese shook his head. “Straight.” He downed the liqueur and the bartender refilled his glass. With the second one, he savored the taste. A little bitter but smoothly abundant with spicy flavors, something like licorice. Some thought Absinthe had the power to invoke visions. Even if the myth behind it wasn’t true, he had to admit it had quite the kick. Eighty percent alcohol should be strong enough to kill any pain.
“You are enjoying Havana, señor?”
“Yes. It’s an interesting city.”
“An inspiring city. The history, the music, and my friend, you cannot forget the beautiful women.”
Reese nodded. Lola was lovely and passionate.
The blue eyes regarded him seriously. “Do you need a woman, señor? I have a friend who is muy guapa. Um, yes, in English, I think you say pretty? And she is a bargain. Doesn’t ask for much.” The bartender rinsed a beer glass in his sink. “Tonight Sofia is at home. Fifty pesos for her and twenty for the casa.”
Seeing Reese’s puzzled look, he explained, “We always charge for the house. It’s her father’s.”
“You mean her father wouldn’t mind?”
“No, not at all. The family needs the money. The women have a responsibility to help.” With a shrug of his shoulders he said, “Of course there will be a charge for the taxi unless you have your own transportation?”
“Yes, I do actually, but, no thanks. Although,” seeing the bartender frown, he added, “I’m sure she is a wonderful girl but no.”
“You might change your mind. She has,” he made a swirling motion with his hands, “a good figure.” Not hearing a response, he added, “Or is a woman not to your liking?” He lifted an eyebrow. “Perhaps, you are not that way inclined?”
“If you are homosexual I also have a friend that you would like. A young student. Very nice.”
Reese laughed. “No, not for me, thanks. I assure you, I love a woman as much as any man, but I’m here in Cuba for other reasons.” Throwing back the liquor, he drained the glass.
The bartender cocked his head to one side. “If not for our women or our men, why are you here?”
Stroking his chin reflectively, Reese leaned back in his stool. “I’m a doctor. I’d heard the hurricane has left people destitute and some medical supplies aren’t available. I brought a suitcase-full to distribute and my services as well, if needed.”
The bartender nodded. “That is kind of you, doctor. Mi nombre es Jorge.”
Jorge refilled Reese’s glass. “This one is on me.”
“Gracias, amigo. Have you heard of any problems?”
Jorge laughed dryly. “Cuba has a shortage—building supplies, food and medicine, especially up in the rural areas.’ He lowered his voice. “Even without a hurricane.”
“That’s unfortunate. It must be rough.”
“Yes, but it is what it is.”
“And yet you stay.”
“I love my Cuba but if I could, I would leave. I have relatives in Miami.”
“What about your family?”
“My wife left Havana and took the children to Santiago. I will be lucky to ever see them again.”
“The human struggle is endless, amigo.” Jorge pointed at the photo on the wall behind him. “See that man?”
A dark-haired handsome man with facial hair wearing a revolutionary cap and khaki outfit stood in a field swinging a golf club. The same man was on posters all over Havana.
“Who?” Chortling, Jorge smacked his hand on the counter. “Ah-h, Reese, you make me laugh. If you say his name like that people will look at you in wonder. I tell you something. Roll your r’s to say Guevara. And it is Ché.” His lips made a loud distinct ch noise.
“I have much to learn when it comes to Spanish, amigo.”
“We all have much to learn.”
Reese smiled. “A philosopher as well as a bartender. How is this? Ché Guevara.” This time Reese rolled his r’s and said Ché with a ch.
“Bueno. Not bad for a touristo.” Flicking a glance back to the photo, Jorge said, “We admired him. An idealist maybe but a man with integrity. It was a blessing for us to have him come here from his homeland.”
“Oh? Where was he from?”
“Argentina.” Jorge pursed his lips thoughtfully. “He was a medico like you. Poor man.”
Reese raised an eyebrow. “Why do you say poor?”
“Died in Bolivia trying to help the people. Shot by the army.”
“I thought he was there insurrecting a revolution.”
“Bolivia had a government run by the CIA.”
“So he thought he could interfere?”
“The people were suffering. No health care or education. He was a good man.”
Reese frowned. “I thought he was responsible for many deaths when the revolution ended. Where I come from a doctor saves lives.”
“Listen,” Jorge whispered, “there were reasons. Honest citizens were imprisoned and tortured by Baptisa’s government. Anyone who spoke out disappeared in the dead of night. Those men shot after the fall of Baptista were traitors to Cuba. Ché knew right from wrong. I doubt if he wanted to punish the traitors but someone had to do it.”
Jorge nodded. “He left it to Ché.”
“Convenient. Kept his popularity intact.”
“The people felt no anger with Ché. They understood. When Ché spoke the people related. He made them laugh. But most importantly of all, Ché had a dream.”
“To create a society where Latin people do not suffer from poverty and servitude. Where a man and his family could get an education and medical aid.”
Reese glanced at his half-empty glass. He had almost finished with this one but the pain was still there.
“What about you?’
“Me?” Reese stared at the bartender.
Jorge dipped a glass in sudsy water and then into some clear water before he picked it up and wiped it. “Do you have dreams?”
“When I sleep.”
Jorge guffawed loudly.
The couple in the corner stopped speaking to glance their way.
“It is good to have a goal in life.” Jorge picked up another glass and wiped it slowly staring at Reese. “What about a wife?”
“Never been in love.”
“That not what I asked. A wife and children.” Jorge leaned back, his butt resting on the ledge behind him, and considered the doctor. “You must be a romantic.”
This time Reese laughed. “Me?”
“You talk of love. Are you?”
The bartender tapped a forefinger on the side of his head. “Loco for a woman?”
“I was once but it went wrong. Too old for that business.”
“You must have enjoyed the chase?”
“I did my share. Fast cars, women, gambling. But one day when my father threatened to cut me off, I sobered up and decided to go to medical school.”
Reese nodded. “Very.”
“You are fortunate.”
Reese looked forlornly at his glass. “Not at all.”
“Yup. A lying scheming woman.”
Jorge nodded solemnly. “It happens. He glanced at the gold watch on Reese’s wrist. “A Rolex?”
Reese nodded. “A birthday present to myself. It’s today—my birthday. I bought it before I left Canada.”
“Canada? You’re from there, are you? Cold isn’t it?”
“Probably snowing as we speak.” Reese jerked his chin towards the glasses on the shelf. “Time for me to buy you a drink.”
Jorge took a shot glass, set it on the bar and poured the glimmering liquid in both glasses before he set the bottle down. “Salud! Feliz cumpleaños,” he said, lifting the glass high.
Reese clicked his glass. “Thanks. Salud! May you see your kids again.”
“Health, wealth and love.” Jorge chucked down his drink. “Medicine is a fine field and I suppose fulfilling, but a man is only complete with a family. You need a wife.”
Reese slugged back the Absinthe and set the glass down. His stomach burned. “A woman, yes, a wife no.”
“A wife can be a blessing if she is the right one.” The bartender jerked his head towards the man and woman. “See that fellow? That hombre comes in here with that lady a couple times a year. Each time with her. I know she is waiting for him to marry her.” Jorge sighed. “Very sad.”
As if on signal, the big man yelled out, “Amigo! Two more.”
Snatching up Bucaneros from the fridge, Jorge uncapped them and trotted over to the table occupied by the couple. The stocky tourist, decked in short-sleeved cotton shirt and tan Dockers, had his arm thrown around the shoulders of a slim brunette in a floral dress. With a beefy hand, he poured a beer into a glass for his date while he drank his straight from the bottle.
Back at the bar, Jorge whispered in a confidential tone, “He’s mad for women, that one.” Tossing the empties in a bin, he shouted over to the big man, “Gunther. Here’s someone from your country.”
Lively brown eyes in a freckled baby face brightened. It was the look of an innocent, not a connoisseur of women. His words came out clipped. “Hey, man, you Canadian?”
Reese nodded. “Just south of Toronto.”
“Ja? That right? London?”
“I detect an accent.”
“Right you are. I’m from Germany. My company transferred me to the Toronto office. I know Waterloo. My aunt lives there.”
“He means his girlfriend,” Jorge said under his breath. “He’s got a woman in every port.”
The German tipped back his beer. “You on vacation?”
“Sort of. I needed a break. When I heard about how hard the hurricane hit Cuba, I thought I’d like to come and help. I’m a doctor.”
When the man stood up, Reese was reminded of a giant grizzly. Mumbling something to the woman, he sauntered over to Reese. “The name is Gunther. Nice to meet you, doctor,” he said, thrusting his hand out.
“Listen, I don’t wish to impose but, could you give me some quick medical advice? You don’t mind, do you? It’s extremely important.”
“What’s the problem?”
Eyes shot fleetingly down and back to Reese. “I am a man with much appetite, you understand.”
Jorge’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “And stamina.”
“And now you are losing it?”
“No, man.” Gunther chortled. “A blood vessel broke.”
The corners of Reese’s mouth curled up. “How do you explain that?”
“The condom was too small.”
“So doctor, what would you suggest?”
Reese stroked his chin thoughtfully. “This could be serious…something for a surgeon to see. You don’t want permanent problems.” He dug in his wallet. “Here is the number of a doctor who could help. Tell him I sent you.”
“Surgery?” Gunther frowned. “I would need that?”
“And then what? No more women?”
Reese shrugged. “I doubt that, but you will have to be more careful in the future. For now, I would suggest you refrain from sex. Rest. Eventually you should be like new.”
The German nodded. “Thank you, my friend.” He glanced at the dark beauty with the worried expression sitting at his table. “She won’t like this,” he grumbled, before heading back.
Jorge followed the heavy man’s return to his table with serious eyes. “Likes to have a woman several times a day. I think he’s not too happy right now.”
Reese’s mouth twitched. “Interesting. Never had a patient with that sort of problem. Usually it’s the opposite…can’t get it up.”
Jorge laughed. “Gunther is an unusual fellow. Has a girl in Toronto, another in your city and yet one more back in Germany.” His eyes shot back to the table. “You believe his story?”
“The blood vessel part, yes…the part about the condom being too small, definitely a lie.”
Jorge threw back his head and laughed loudly. “I do know this. He prefers our Cuban women. He thinks they are the best.”
He was almost envious of Gunther with his particular obsessive compulsive disorder. “Your women are very attractive,” Reese agreed, visualizing Lola’s pert breasts in his hands, her body softly compliant.
He had needed that release. But then, the blonde entered his reverie—a woman with a sparkle in her eyes and plenty of curves to make his blood rush. He lowered his gaze to the definite bulge straining his jeans.
The bartender leaned forward. “You have the look of a man with a woman on his mind.”
A secretive smile formed on Reese’s lips. “Not one woman, Jorge, two.”
Jorge chortled. “Careful. You don’t want to end up like our friend over there.”
A pain centered in a spot at the back of my head. Voices droned around me like wasps in a hive. From behind wooden counters loaded with goods, vendors shouted out to the tourists.
Tentatively, I explored under my hair. Tender to the touch, I withdrew my hand to see red-stained fingertips.
It brought on a strange reaction. My hands trembled uncontrollably. A memory flashed. In my mind I saw a man lying in tall grass. “See anything?”
“It’s been quiet. Getting hungry…”
A round of machine gun fire whistled past my ear. Dropping down beside him, I flattened myself into the grass. Bullets scattered closer. Bringing my AK automatic up, I returned fire in the direction of the shots. When nothing further came at us, I breathed out in relief. The noise of combat grew fainter.
“They’ve gone up river. We’re done for today.” Tomorrow the battle would be back on. “We should eat. I have bread. It’s only a little moldy. Xavier?”
Hearing no reply, I parted the grasses. He was lying still. When I touched his shoulder, Xavier’s head rolled to the side. Eyes stared unseeingly. I pulled him up by the shoulders. Where there should have been bone and hair was instead a bloody mess. My stomach churned. Shuddering, I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to erase the vision.
With relief, I saw I was back in Havana. My gaze swept down the row of stalls. Spray paintings, jewelry, t-shirts and souvenirs. As I touched a wood sculpture, the memory faded.
Adjusting my sunglasses, I scanned the area, wondering if it was a premonition or a glimpse from another life. In my mom’s last days, I had been told how the sight was inherited. Grandmother was a visual sensitive. She heard angel voices. There would be a story in her art. It was a gap in my life that needed filling.
As I rounded the corner, I heard the melodic strains of a salsa coming from somewhere in the square. On the doorstep outside a simple structure, dusky-skinned women in tight jeans and t-shirts sat chatting. The plaque on the wall of the building indicated it was a revolutionary museum.
A centuries-old cathedral in gray granite towered high just beyond the corner, above the restaurant and museum. With a breeze whirling through the cobble-stoned square, I stopped to look at the huge rectangular doorway framed by swirling ornate curly-cues. Ionic columns bordered the opening on each side.
As my camera zoomed in, the hairs on my neck stood on end. An old place like this had spirits. Things had happened here, some of them not so pleasant. Impatiently, I shook away the energy and walked determinedly to the far end of the square to frame the cathedral in my lens. Not entirely satisfied with the first few shots, I kept at it before dropping the Nikon into my bag.
Across the cobblestone plaza, I passed a small white and brown spotted dog. The terrier gazed up with a hopeful wag of his tail. Just then I spotted an outdoor restaurant directly across the square. I decided to have lunch and save something. “I’ll be back,” I assured my canine friend before heading over to a wrought-iron table.
While I sat on one of the metal chairs, I checked my wallet. After leaving pesos for the maid, there wasn’t that much left. It was time to go to a money exchange but my stomach growled, nagging for a refill.
A waiter strode up. Young enough to still be in high school, he grinned, his eyes dancing flirtatiously. “Buenos tardes, señorita.” A menu was handed over with a flourish.
“Hola. Do you take MasterCard?”
“So sorry, no.”
“Could you recommend something inexpensive to eat? I’m afraid I haven’t much money with me.”
He pursed his lips reflectively. “Perhaps soup? We have a fine garlic soup. You would like it.”
Soup sounded good but was hardly a doggie treat.
“It comes with corn chips.”
Pleased, I nodded. “Perfect.” The dog could eat the corn chips.
“And to drink?”
When I searched the menu, it surprised me to see water was more than beer. “Una cerveza, por favor.”
Smooth strains of a rumba filled the air. At the entrance of the restaurant, a five piece band had started back up. It had to be the same one I’d heard on my way into the square. Pleasing rhythms. The lead singer had a way of crooning a love song that touched the soul. A song about a corazón. An aching heart filled with love perhaps. I smiled sourly. Like mine once was.
I settled in the chair and stretched my feet out. The afternoon sun succeeded in easing my state of gloom. I wouldn’t think about my heart. Nothing good would come from any thoughts of my ex.
My mother had died of cancer. From her diary, I gathered our Cuban father had abandoned his wife and daughters. I had grown up in foster care knowing nothing about him or my Jewish roots. Somewhere in this city, my grandmother had lived amongst the Havana artists.
The cathedral was impressive. Although Cuba was communist, the people were allowed to worship in church. Even the Jews had synagogues. After lunch I’d have a look at the massive building and if time permitted, search for the synagogue.
Reflectively, I scanned the patrons of the outdoor restaurant. Apart from a table occupied by a group, there was a young couple obviously in love. Two dark heads almost touching, fingers entwined, sitting so close they were almost one.
Not for me. I was alone but not lonely. In fact, it would have been worse if Henry was here. Under his stare, I’d rush to think of topics to discuss, carrying on inanely about anything to drown the uncomfortable silence. Was it even possible that at one time we’d been companions and lovers?
“Cerveza, señorita.” The waiter smiled brightly and set a glass and a bottle of beer on the table.
The wail of a trumpet, along with the downbeats from the band’s drums, drowned out my thank you. Suddenly aware of how thirsty I was, I poured the beer into the glass and drank. It hadn’t been an easy day. Fingertips to the back of my head skimmed a sizeable lump under my hair. I was reminded me of how lucky I’d been to escape a visit to a Cuban hospital.
It would have put a wrench in my plans. I had dreams. Unrealistic ones, possibly, yet the feeling within me felt so strong, it was as if I was meant to be here.
Balancing a tray on his hand, the waiter swerved in and around the tables, finally reaching mine. “Señorita. Enjoy your soup,” he said, setting the soup and chips alongside a napkin and utensils.
“Gracias.” I glanced over to the museum steps. The dog was gone. Pensively, I spooned up the soup, deciding to save some corn chips in the paper napkin, just in case.
The soup hit the spot. I’d mistakenly rushed out to the bus thinking I would survive just fine until dinner at the hotel.
A wave to the waiter brought him over. I gave him enough to cover the bill and a tip. It was time to check out the cathedral. The chips wrapped in a napkin, I stuffed them in the side pocket of my bag and, camera in hand, I trekked up a number of steps to the entrance of the cathedral.
The height of the ceiling was impressive. At the front, a stained glass Mary and Child towered above the worshipers. Old ladies in drab dresses, heads covered with black shawls, lit candles in front of altars. Near the entrance, a young man in a tan uniform sat at a desk.
There was a charge for anyone bringing in a camera. After a look around, I discarded that idea. The lighting and the height of the ceiling would make it extremely difficult to capture anything this extraordinary. It was an astounding structure. Rays of filtered light in rose hues and a cool silence inside lent an ethereal air to the cathedral.
Someone brushed by me as lightly as butterfly wings but when I turned to see who it was, I saw no one. A shiver raced down my spine. My imaginings were becoming far too frequent. I was beginning to wonder if I was losing it.
Back outside, I heard a sharp bark. The brown and white dog danced on his hind legs in front of a man in a chef’s hat and apron at the restaurant I’d just left. When the man disappeared back into the doorway, the terrier sat back on his haunches waiting.
Was he hoping for more? I dug out the corn chips in my purse and flew down the stairs but by the time I reached the fence around the restaurant, the dog was gone.
A sudden cool breeze signaled rain. Above, dark gray clouds loomed low in the sky. A muffled bark brought my attention back to the street. I ran over to the door where I’d seen the cook. It was shut.
Just then the dog reappeared. When he saw me, his brown eyes grew sad. From out of the napkin, I placed a few chips on the ground in front of him.
Before chowing down, he gave me his best grin. It was then that the rain started misting my skin lightly. With a final flick of his tongue, the terrier set off down the narrow street. Turning about, he gave me a quick arf, trotted ahead and stopped before he eyed me once again.
I stood there, the chips in hand. Undaunted by my hesitation, the tiny dog retraced his steps and let out a sharp bark. Any fool could see he wanted me to follow. I went after him although it would have been a better idea to find shelter.
Halfway down the block, the dark clouds decided to play rough. A thick sheet of tropical rain soaked me in seconds. The dog took cover under an awning. Above his head, a wooden sign read Mojito. The dog sat on a straw mat on the stoop and grinned.
I took his advice and joined him. Others in the street had the same idea and scurried to get out of the storm. I dropped the remaining chips on the cobblestone for the dog. The storm picked up strength, and I moved in closer to the wall. The chill that accompanies a downpour made me long for an armchair in front of a warm fire.
“Señorita,” a voice boomed out from behind me, “why not come in out of the rain? You will find it much more pleasant inside.”
I had to crane my neck up to see the dark-skinned man’s face. An impressive height, he could have been a football linebacker so broad were his shoulders. “I haven’t much money with me.”
“No hay problema. There are men inside,” he eyed me speculatively, “who would be more than happy to provide you with food and drinks.”
When I frowned, he patted my shoulder reassuringly. “Not bad types. Regular hombres.” Grinning, he took my elbow. “And any friend of this perro is a friend of mine.”
I paused to adjust to the dim lighting inside. “He’s your dog?”
“Sometimes. I call him Mojito and this is his residence but he has friends in the square that take care of his food needs as well,” the bartender said, heading to the bar.
From the corner, I heard a loud snort. A burly man in casual cotton pants and shirt commented in accented English. “I think he prefers their cooking to yours, Jorge. Who can blame him?”
The big Cuban grinned broadly. “A regular diet of my frijoles would get rid of that paunch of yours. Forget your greasy Canadian food. No wonder you have,” he swung his arms as if he was embracing Santa Claus, “a big belly.”
When I peered over to get a look at my fellow Canadian, a pair of lively brown eyes gazed back. Getting on his feet, he trotted over and extended a big hand. “Jorge is just jealous. Hello, beautiful lady, I’m Gunther. Welcome to the Mojito.”
“Anise.” I shook his hand. “You’re Canadian yet I detect an accent?”
“German. Living in Toronto for now. Come join us.” He indicated the petite Latina in a tight green dress sitting with him. “This is my Clara. She speaks only a little English.”
Slipping off my damp cardigan and placing it on the back of the chair, I took a seat at the round table. “Hola,” I said to the petite brunette.
Clara leaned over, pulled me close and kissed me lightly on each cheek. It was something to get used to.
When soft fur brushed my calf I looked down, half expecting the little dog but it was a golden-eyed black cat with glossy short fur. I scratched the little creature on its head between the ears. My new friend rubbed appreciatively against my leg.
“Negro likes you,” commented the German. “He is particular about his associates. This gato is a good judge of character.” He pursed his lips. “I suppose a cat would have to be.”
“Santeria. They sacrifice small animals for their blood. Although birds and goats are the most common.”
“That’s awful. I have heard of chickens but cats and dogs?”
Gunther shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows? Every Santeria saint needs a different sacrifice. Odd that you don’t see many cats, though, isn’t it?”
That was true enough. I hadn’t thought about it but I hadn’t seen one cat in the streets.“It’s all very secretive. They claim to be Catholics but most people belong to Santeria. So, you understand why Negro stays here in the bar. He wouldn’t trust just anyone. I think he feels the danger.”
I stroked the cat’s soft fur. I heard him purr as I scratched him under the chin.
“He thinks you can be trusted.”
“What do you know of about this religion, Gunther? Isn’t Santeria something like Voodoo?”
“I don’t know how they compare, Anise. I can tell you herbs and plants play a role, for sure. There are stores from which to buy the necessary objects for healing. That’s right, isn’t it, Clara?”
Clara nodded imperceptively. “The priest or priestess helps people,” she shook her head, “but I should not speak of it. If you want to be part of Santeria, a madrina must teach you.”
Gunther pushed his wire-rimmed glasses firmly on his nose. “I can tell you some things. There is a patron saint for each person. They told me mine is Chango.” Gunther tipped his beer back. “A saint who has many lovers. Now,” he lifted his forefinger and waved it emphatically, “I heard that drug lords pick the god of hunting. How is he called, Clara?”
“Ochosi,” Clara murmured, placing a hand on her boyfriend’s arm as if to stop the conversation.
But the big man had just warmed up to the topic. “It is quite fascinating. I have seen a little of the songs, dancing and rituals mainly because of Clara.”
“Hey, Gunther,” Jorge called out from behind the bar. “I think you are being greedy, amigo. You have no need for two women, especially now.” He rapped his hand on the bar. “But the doctor here needs to meet a pretty woman. Don’t you, my friend?” he said to the man seated on the barstool before him.
“Yes, of course.” The German called out to the stranger seated at the bar with his back to us. “Hey, doctor! Foreigners need to stick together.” Gunther tossed back the last trickle in his beer bottle. “Bring your bottle over here and be sociable.”
The stranger swiveled around. Startled, I recognized him. Eyes like a forest at dusk. He wasn’t classically handsome but the strong nose, jaw line and eyes made for a magnetic face.
Slick in his black clothing, he was a panther surveying his territory. When he strode over to us, he nodded briskly. “Hola. I’m Reese,” he said, taking the chair beside me.
“There is no need for you to drink alone. We will help you out.” Gunther peered at the bottle of Absinthe Reese set on the table. “Never tried that stuff but always willing to experiment. This is your lucky day, doctor. You met me,” he pointed to his chest, “Gunther, and now you will meet,” he gestured, “these lovely ladies.”
The doctor was some cool customer. Only a few hours ago he had run me down but now it was as if we had never met. He smiled and nodded.
Grinning broadly, the bartender traipsed over and set down four shot glasses.
As Reese poured the green liquid in the short clear glasses, Gunther eyed the doctor. “Shall I introduce you? This fabulous creature is Anise and this sensational lady is my lovely Clara.”
“Nice to meet you ladies. Encantado.” Reese’s look was guarded.
Was he still angry about the accident?
From under heavy-lidded eyes, Clara studied Reese. It was clear she found him attractive. “You are a doctor?”
“Si. A pediatrician.”
Clara raised an eyebrow.
“Un doctor para los chicos,” Gunther explained.
“Ah-hh. Muy bien.” Clara smiled and batted her lashes flirtatiously. “It is a wonderful thing to be a doctor.”
“It is.” Although Reese spoke to Clara, his enigmatic eyes watched me.
“Where are you from?”
“Canada. Outside of Toronto.”
Gunther held his glass up. “Come everyone, a toast, Salud!”
I joined the others in clinking glasses before I tipped back the Absinthe. Strange how he lived so close to my home.
Reese touched my hand. “You like it?”
His touch was electric. I withdrew my hand. It was difficult to speak. “Mm-mm,” I murmured, drawn to his face more than I wanted to be. “Subtle spices. I’m not sure what. Not mint?”
The corners of his mouth turned up. “It’s anise. Absinthe has anise in it.”
Gunther laughed. “I think you brought the perfect drink for this lady.” He glanced at his empty glass. “Good enough for another,” he said, holding his glass for a refill.
With a hint of a smile, Reese poured some more. “Staying here in Havana?”
Gunther squeezed Clara’s hand. “We are in Guanoba. What about you, Doc?”
“Outside of the city. A few miles from you—east.”
“And Anise,” Gunther cocked his head, “where is your place?”
“Same. The Este beach.”
Gunther squeezed Clara’s shoulder. “It is a great there.” He pursed his bow mouth. “Are you here for long, Anise?”
“As long as I need to be.”
“Ah-ha, a cryptic answer.” Gunther said, leaning back in his chair. “A woman of mystery. Perhaps you can get the goods on this lady, Doctor.”
Reese’s eyes darkened. I could feel the heat rise to my cheeks.
From behind us I heard the voices of a group of Cubans entering the bar. They sat down at the table closer to the back where Jorge scooted over to bring them a round of beers. Whatever he said brought on titters from the ladies.
Gunther leaned forward. “Tell us more.”
“It’s twofold. I’m working on a project.”
His forehead furrowed as he considered what I’d said. “What is your job?”
“I’m a teacher but I’m on leave to work on a book.”
Clara studied me. “My cousin,” she pronounced carefully, “teaches in Havana. Where is your school?”
“Kitchener, a city near Toronto.”
Clara rubbed the big man’s arm. “Ah, yes, I know of it from my novio.” She sighed. “I hear it is muy linda.”
I smiled. “No palm trees.”
The big man displayed even white teeth as his mouth widened into a smile. “Clara has never left Cuba.”
She shrugged her shoulders delicately, a forlorn look on her heart-shaped face.
Cheerfully, Gunther continued. “Still, Clara is lucky. Both she and her sister work in the Hotel Nacional. The one that Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener stayed in.”
Clara nodded. She tilted her head. “You said you have leave. Explain, please.”
“I don’t get paid but I’m allowed some time off.”
Reese leaned in. “You are a writer as well?”
“It is a picture story of Cuba. I’m a photographer.”
Suddenly up on her feet, Clara said pointedly, “Baño, Anise.” She motioned towards the back.
Figuring she wanted me to go to the washroom with her, I stood up. The room whirled before me—the occupants of the table a swirl of color. I gripped my chair to steady myself. Reese rose and flung his arm around my waist. “Are you alright?”
"Yes. I’m good.” His arm was charged with energy. Through my thin cotton dress it sparked into my body. I had never felt that from a man.
Reese let go hesitantly when Clara extended her hand. I took it gratefully and was somewhat relieved to get away. The hand-holding was a little strange but what the heck, when in Rome.
“Hurry back, Liebchen.” Gunther tossed back a glass of Absinthe and said something under his breath to Reese as Clara led me over to the door labeled Damas.
The bathroom was tiny with a single sink to the left and two stalls straight ahead. Clara tried the doors and found they were occupied.
In front of the mirror over the stained sink, a trim lady with brilliant yellow hair was straightening her mini-skirt but when she saw me she stopped and checked me out instead. She spoke Spanish while studying my face and hair. Grinning, she made a comment.
Clara struggled to explain but the words failed her and she pointed at my eyes. “She says your eyes are strong.”
Did she mean the color? “Gracias,” I thanked the lady who now placed her hands on the straps of my dress and loosened them an inch or so before tugging the dress down a fraction.
Her large almond-shaped eyes sparkled as she spoke. I wasn’t too sure if it was my cleavage she liked or the yellow dress.
Amused, I left everything the way it was. When I reappeared from the stall, Clara presented me with a tissue while my hands hesitantly entered a stream of yellowish water trickling from a rusty tap. With no soap, I shook off the excess and patted my hands dry.
It was then that a small painting caught my eye. Blues and yellows in the expressionistic style. A sad blonde woman looked over the bow of a ship, her clothing reminiscent of the forties with shoulder pads and a huge hat. It was skillfully rendered. At the corner etched in red paint, A Sommerville. The name startled me. When Clara took my hand, my mind raced. A self-portrait. The lady in the hat had to be my grandmother. She was Ana and I was Anise. Our initials were the same.
In a bit of a daze, I returned with Clara. Jorge had taken a seat back at our table. The men were laughing. Apparently Reese had said something funny. Somehow I hadn’t pictured the man as anything but serious. Catching me staring, Reese’s face once more became a mask as he lifted the bottle and poured everyone a refill.
“To new friends,” he said, eyes meeting mine.
“Am I forgiven then?”
Sensuous lips curled up at the ends. “I think I could be persuaded.”
“Hah! The doctor is a sly fox.” Gunther chuckled. “We heard the story while you were in the bathroom. This guy goes around Havana running down attractive women. I suppose that’s one way to get them to notice.”
Jorge pulled out a cigar from his pocket and clipped off the end. “I think a person needs to watch out around the doctor.” Remembering his manners, he offered them around the table but only Gunther pulled one out of the package.
Flicking his lighter, Gunther took a drag before passing it to Jorge. “And I’m beginning to think Reese is not quite the do-gooder he pretends to be.”
“Pretends?” Reese downed his Absinthe in one quick swig. “I take my profession seriously.”
“Maybe, but you are a danger to a healthy woman,” the German said, gazing at me as he spoke.
“Anise is in no danger. She’s…”
“Hot? Which makes her in danger.” Gunther grinned. “Still, it’s a strange meeting you have to admit. Driving into a woman?”
“Not ideal, I agree, but what the hell. I forgave Anise for nearly killing us. My plans would have been shot if I’d ended up in the hospital.”
His plans? What about mine? Arrogant ass! I shot him an evil glare.
“And your plan is?” Gunther probed.
Reese avoided my look and turned to the big guy. “Biking inland and helping Cubans.”
Out of the tourist area—inland. This was something that could work for me. If only he could be persuaded to take me along, but then, did I want to go with him?
“It’s rough up there, buddy.” Gunther ran his fingers through his curly mane. “Hey, maybe you could stop in to see Clara’s brother. He’d put you up. He has a sugar cane farm. I’ll draw you a map. We’d go with you but I think I’d better see the surgeon tomorrow. ”
“And my cousin Julio has a house overlooking the sea up the coast. It’s in the cliffs, mind you, but still very nice.” Jorge’s chest puffed up like a rooster’s. “Julio is a government auditor. He might like a visit.”
Accommodation would be perfect. God knows I didn’t have the money to pay for another hotel. “I need to see the area outside of Havana for my book project.”
All eyes turned to me.
“Cuba was the place my grandmother settled in during the war. She was an artist. I thought if I came here I’d understand more about her. And then I found myself channeling into my creative side. The areas outside of the city would make interesting photographs. Already I have pictures of Havana which show the spirit of the people.”
“How did you expect to explore Cuba? You are alone, aren’t you?” Reese leaned back in his chair.
“It’s not safe.”
“I can take care of myself.” For a number of years I had been a student of karate. Self-defense was muscle memory for me but I understood his point. Once weapons were involved it was infinitely more dangerous. “This is important. I need to see more of Cuba. The mountains would be perfect. Would you take me with you, Reese? Please. I’ll pay my own way…gas, whatever.”
“No way, Anise,” Gunther patted my hand, a big grin on his face. “You don’t want to go there with him. What do they say about doctors? Or is that nurses?”
My cheeks flamed.
“Shut up, you fool,” Jorge broke in. “Can’t you see you’re embarrassing the lady?” He turned to Reese. “Well? She wants to be there as much as you. Are you going to help her out?”
Reese’s eyes glowed like embers in a fire. “I’d like to know more about the whatever.”
Gunther chortled and slapped Reese on the back. “Funny fellow.” His face became suddenly serious. “It’s no place for a lady like Anise. She should stay here where it’s safe.”
I directed my gaze to Reese. “Is that what you think? I should stay in Havana and take photos here?”
Reese leaned back in the chair and let his gaze drop down the length of my body. “Well, you look healthy enough.”
Jorge’s eyes dropped to my cleavage. “Muy guapa, Reese.”
“She can’t be any healthier,” Gunther piped in. “See what I mean?” He glanced around the table. “He wants to play doctor but the patient is a vibrant beautiful woman with no need of his probing.”
I rubbed my forehead, aware of the pain that had crept up on me.
“Anise?” Reese took my hand and pulled me towards him. He peered into my eyes. “Are you sure you’re alright? Your pupils are very large.”
“She’s not the only one, doctor. The Absinthe could kill a horse.” The German glanced around the table. “Or cure us of all that ails us. In my case, I would hope quickly. Poor Clara hates to be deprived.”
Reese stood and picked up the Absinthe. The green liqueur filled a third of the bottle. “Still lots left, Gunther. Save some for me, eh?”
We watched him head for the baño at the back. Again I saw him limp.
Gunther slurred out his words. “That man has something wrong with his leg.”
I was feeling the effects of that potent green liquor, myself. “He was hurt when he collided into me today. Out near the square. I was trying to take a picture and he didn’t see me.” I faltered in my story as white flashed before my eyes. A cold current entered my body. I saw an icy road. A car out of control. Shrieks…pain… and then everything turned black.” I shivered before the image left.
“Anise?” Jorge shook my shoulder. “You’ve gone all pale. I think you need to lie down. The Absinthe is strong.” He glanced at Clara, whose head slumped down on the edge of the table.
The bartender was right but that didn’t account for the visions. There was no use telling them. That would bury me as far as the motorcycle trip was concerned. “I should have eaten something. At the café, I had soup.”
“What do you have for us to eat, Jorge?” Reese said from behind.
“Pork, rice and beans. You buying, doctor?” Jorge asked.
Gunther waved his hand in protest. “No. Let this be on me. We will have all the food you have. Four plates, por favor.”
Nodding, the bartender headed behind the bar where a small doorway led to another room. He disappeared in what I supposed was the kitchen.
My stomach was somersaulting and my head felt heavy.
“I’ll ask Jorge if he has a room upstairs you could rest in,” Reese said in my ear.
I hardly dared meet his eyes. “No, I’ll feel better after I eat, I’m sure.” Something strange had happened with that whisper. A rush of energy had coursed through my body.
“Gut, mädchen. Stay here with us,” Gunther poured another shot for each of us. “We are here to enjoy Cuba, right?”
Clara stirred restlessly, muttering something in Spanish as Jorge appeared carrying a tray piled high with rice, beans and meat.
Jorge grinned. “I see I must join you or one meal will go to waste. The señorita will be better after she sleeps it off. Would you like to take a room upstairs?”
“Ja, that might be necessary.”
Jorge pulled up a chair from the other table and joined us. “Take the lady up to the first bedroom on the right.”
“Sure, but first,” Gunther picked up a fork, “I must sample the dinner. I can’t wait. This poor belly,” he patted-the pillowy tummy, “needs a refill.”
Though my stomach begged for food, I found it hard to focus. The Absinthe had sent me into a spacey state. It took an effort to stab a slice of pork and bring it up to my lips. A savory morsel, unlike anything I’d ever had. Not spicy but delicious nonetheless.
The men stared as I chewed.
“Well,” Jorge said. “What do you say? Bueno?”
I swallowed the tender meat. “It’s great.” The combination of rice and beans hit the spot.
“I will return,” Gunther said, lifting Clara in his arms. “The room on the right?”
“Si,” Jorge said between mouthfuls.
Gunther returned in record time and dug in with the rest of us. For a few minutes, the topic of conversation was forgotten in the enjoyment of the Cuban feast.
“Good job, Jorge,” Gunther muttered between bites. “What say you to the dinner, Reese?”
“Mm-mm,” was all he got out of the doctor.
At the other table one of the men took up a guitar and started to strum as the blonde from the washroom tapped rhythmically on a small drum. When the group sang a soft melody, Jorge stopped eating and joined in on the chorus.
The song was about a woman. Although the music was pleasant, an alarm sounded in my head.
Suddenly, Reese jumped to his feet, his face flushed. “Come on, Anise. Let’s dance.” He bowed in a sweeping motion.
A glint in his eyes told me he meant it. I dropped my fork.
Taking my hand, Reese pulled me up out of my chair. “Yeah. Life is more than pictures.”
I hadn’t danced for a couple of years but salsa was easy to pick up again. My right hand held high, I was led into a spin. Managing that one with no mishaps, I sashayed back, remembering to swing my hips to the beat. Every step I took gained attention from my partner whose eyes glittered like emeralds from under heavy-lids. His gaze struck my body like a thunderbolt.
Absinthe is a strange brew. Hands thrown up, I wiggled my body to the rhythm of the music.
Shouts and whistles from the next table encouraged us to move even more flamboyantly. How I managed a double spin was beyond me. I was flying. Soon we weren’t dancing alone. My amiga from the baño decided she would take Gunther on the dance floor for an impromptu lesson.
It was all fun until I lost my footing and pressed against Reese for support. “Sorry. I slipped.” The glimpse of pain on his face surprised me. “Did I hurt you?”
“No-oo. Of course not,” he muttered, before taking me back to the table and dropping into the nearest chair.
Jorge called out. “Anise, I think el doctor is done. Come, we will dance.” And catching my hand, the bartender led me into the next melody.
It was a fast salsa and with an expert dancer. I swiveled in the wrong direction but he pulled me back into a left-handed spin. Happily, I flew into the motion until in the corner of my eye I spied Reese gripping his calf.
I stopped dancing. “I think there’s something wrong with Reese.”
“The man has had his fill. This is to be expected, Anise. Absinthe is a powerful liqueur.” Jorge cocked his head and had a look. “But you may be right.” He dashed over to Reese with me right behind. “How are you, amigo?”
“For the Absinthe?”
Reaching in his bag, he pulled out a pill box. “No, I need it for my leg.” Reese tossed a white pill down his throat before he followed it with a slug of Absinthe. “A bag of it if you have it.”
“Reese, I didn’t realize you were in pain. Perhaps we shouldn’t have danced.”
His green eyes met mine. “It’s nothing to do with you, Anise. I wanted to. No worries. The injury is an old one from a…”
“Car accident.” I finished his sentence without thinking.
Reese shot me a look. “How did you know?”
I shook my head. “I’m so sorry I stepped on you.” I didn’t know how I could tell him something so personal.
Jorge interrupted. “Come, I will take you up to one of the rooms. You can ice it there.” With a hand under Reese’s arm, he helped him up. “This way.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the stairs.
“Let me bring the ice.” I headed over to the fridge and opened the freezer door.
“I’ll take him up. First room to the left,” Jorge shouted over his shoulder.
With a plastic bag of ice from the freezer, I picked up my tote and turned to go.
“What’s up, Anise?” Gunther’s large frame was sprawled in a chair beside the blonde.
“Jorge is giving Reese a room. He’s in pain.”
“And you are bringing ice? Very nice. Such a lovely nurse for the doctor.”
“He needs it, Gunther, and heaven knows it was my fault aggravating an old injury.”
“Well, we shall all stay here tonight then.” The big man smirked. “See you in the morning, Anise.”
What other choice was there? Glancing out the window at the darkness, I regretted my impulsive decision to come to the Mojito. The last shuttle must have left hours ago and I didn’t have enough money for a taxi back.
On the way up, I turned right, opening the first door. It was dark and at first I didn’t see Clara in bed covered by a blanket. Realizing I had gone the wrong way, I was about to leave when Clara called out, “Anise, por favor.”
Her voice was so quiet, I came nearer. When she sat up suddenly, I was taken aback by her drawn face. “What is it, Clara? Are you ill?”
With a wave of her hand to the bed, she indicated I should sit. As I took a seat beside her, a haze of white appeared around her body and then a deep purple bordered the aura. I had seen this particular aura around Christmas.
Slurred words and a frozen expression made me believe she was in a trance when she spoke. “I am afraid for you, Ani. Be careful in your journey. There is evil in the house.” And with that, Clara’s eyes closed and sleep overcame her.
With the effects of the Absinthe, I was not myself, but I was convinced that Clara was a medium. Others spoke through her. Who was it that was trying to communicate with me? Clara had said Ani, the name my mama had called me.
Aware of the cold sensation in my hand, I gazed down at the ice pack I held, realizing I needed to get it to Reese. I retraced my steps to the first door on the left of the stairs and knocked.
“Good,” Jorge said, swinging the door wide, “you are here. Please, you must help me. El doctor has consumed too much Absinthe. I can’t take his clothes off by myself. Set the ice on that dresser and come here.”
With his head propped up by a pillow, eyes half closed, Reese had stretched out his long jean-clad legs the length of the bed. “Anise?” he croaked.
“Yes. Don’t worry. The pain will lessen. I’ve brought ice.”
“I think I need more than ice,” he murmured hoarsely.
There was no question about what he needed from the way his eyes slowly consumed my body.
Jorge grinned. “Reese must not be in pain if he’s thinking of your womanly charms.”
“Don’t be silly, Jorge. Where do you want to start? His t-shirt?” I asked hurriedly to change the subject.
Jorge nodded. Reese sat up in the bed and waited expectantly for me to proceed.
Tentatively, I slid my hands down his shirt, feeling hard abs through the cotton. Gripping the edge of the shirt, I tugged upwards. The fresh scent of spice assailed my nostrils. I leaned closer to breathe it in. I was so near I could have kissed his chest but instead pulled away to let Jorge jerk the tee off.
Overwhelmed by the strange stirrings inside me, I could only watch as Jorge undid Reese’s belt. It wouldn’t be easy to undress him. The doctor, although lean, was also muscular and a big man.
“Come, amiga. Help me. We need to take his pants off.”
A giggle caught in my throat. Embarrassment made me laugh but to be honest, I had to be kidding myself if I denied my excitement. What red-blooded woman wouldn’t want to unwrap this fine male specimen? “What should I do?”
“Hold him while I pull the jeans off.”
I sprawled over his chest to grip him and Jorge grabbed and pulled the jeans down.
After we finished the job, I couldn’t help but smile, pleased by what I saw.
“He is still quite the man,” Jorge muttered, a hint of wonder in his voice. “I would have thought with so much liquor…” He glanced at me. “You have a powerful effect on el doctor, Anise. Poor man has two swollen parts.”
I shook my head, not convinced. “No, Jorge, it has nothing to do with me.” I pointed to Reese. “See, I told you. He’s asleep.”
“But he is aroused because of you.” Jorge snickered. “That’s what his body tells me. No denying the obvious.” Taking the ice off the table, Jorge wrapped it in a towel. “The bruise is on his calf. It’ll be better to flip him on his stomach. Hold this.”
Jorge turned Reese around. The purplish raised area of Reese’s calf had a bloody gash. Taking my hand, he placed it on the bag. “You will need to hold it here for a while. I’m sorry, amiga, but I must go. I leave you to care for him.” He paused at the door. “You don’t look well yourself. Rest here. Don’t worry about the room cost. El doctor will pay. In the morning we will all have breakfast.”
The door clicked shut and I was left to press the ice on Reese’s bruise. Examining his face in profile, I was fascinated. His features were irregular but somehow the combination of the slightly crooked nose in a narrow face and full lips all melded into sizzling sensuality.
If I took an ice cube and ran it over my body, would I be able to cool down the heat that consumed me?
With a sigh, I kicked off my sandals and, with my hand on the ice pack, lay down on the bed trying not to think about the sizeable bulge in his gitch. Was it really for me? Had Reese found me as attractive as I had him?
Averting my eyes, I rested, drinking in the scent of his skin. My hand against the ice bag, I slid closer to Reese, sure I should leave but pulled in as iron filings are to a magnet.
An arm pulled me in. “You smell so good, Anise,” he whispered in my ear. His lips touched the nape of my neck. Tingles leaped to my core. I waited for more but his breathing slowed. The absinthe had lulled him into sleep.
My outstretched hand came to rest on something soft and warm—a black patch of fur, my feline friend from the bar. The deep throaty purring eased my tension. I drifted off until the rumble of thunder from outside awoke me.
A flash of lightning lit the room. I raised myself on my elbows and looked over to the window. The room spun around so rapidly, a green vapor formed. From within the haze an athletic man with wavy dark-hair and whiskey eyes stepped towards me. Casually attired in a white cotton buttoned-down shirt tucked into khaki trousers, his confident smile spoke of warm sultry nights.
He sat down at the foot of the bed and gazed soulfully. “I have searched for you. It is my good fortune that I have finally found you. Please, tell me you are happy to see me.”
My jaw dropped. For the life of me I had no idea who he was.
Positioning himself next to me on the edge of the bed, he looked around the room in amusement. “I love you but three in a bed? This is not exactly what I had in mind when I requested to be reunited with my lover. Shall we go and let him sleep it off? You’ll come with me, won’t you?” He took my hand and pulled me up in a sitting position.
I didn’t dare take my eyes off him, this time in case he disappeared as he had last night. “It was you in my room last night.”
“Mm-mm. You found me out, cariño. He shrugged his wide shoulders and grinned, a glint of mischief in his eyes. “But surely you can’t blame me for that? I needed to see you.” Taking a strand of my hair, he slowly threaded his fingers through. “Lovely.”
Heat flushed my cheeks. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“And why is that, mi amor?”
I shook my head in frustration. “Who are you?”
“If I said I was the man for you, I know you wouldn’t believe me, so I’ll just say I’ve been waiting to come back into your life.”
“Back? I don’t know who you are.”
“You are an unusual woman that envisions things others cannot.”
“That’s true but…” How did he know this?
“Soon the truth will reveal itself. Be patient.” Stretching out beside me, my mysterious caller pressed a leg against mine. His heat warmed my skin. A warm rush of energy perked my nipples. “It would be better to speak in private, wouldn’t it? For all we know,” he jerked his chin in the direction of Reese, “he might wake up.”
The man brought my hand to his lips and let them brush against my wrist.
“How beautiful you are,” he murmured. “Your eyes are not like any woman’s I’ve ever known. Blue as the Caribbean and yet other times they have the fascinating ability to change to icy silver. They see into the beyond.”
His husky voice sent shivers down my spine. This wasn’t for real. It couldn’t be. I glanced up at him and met his eyes so illuminated with life. I didn’t understand. First the accident that brought Reese into my life and now this charismatic ghost. What was happening?
“Stop thinking, cariño. It is what is meant to be. Our time is precious and there is too little of it.” With those words, he pulled me close. His mouth caressed mine softly at first before my lips parted to receive the tip of his tongue. A slow sizzle. Then, fire. The bruising kiss left me breathless. “I need you,” the spirit whispered hoarsely. “We must try again. We can beat fate. Come back with me.” Lightning flashed from outside the window. The green vapor in the room dissipated, leaving a white mist, and then there was darkness. Drained, I fell back on the bed. My visitor was gone and I felt strangely sad.